This is a longer version of the article that first appeared in the south Indian daily, Deccan Herald on May 26, 2015.
It is now a year since a new Government has been sworn. The hunger for change, the restlessness of the youth and the oratorical skills of Sri Narendra Modi paid electoral dividends for the BJP and today the Government will be measured by how many of their expectations could be reasonably fulfilled. People will neither have the patience nor the desire to measure the government’s performance evidentially or give it the latitude of allowing for change to emerge organically. Most will measure it emotionally using their own yardsticks. And the Government too will not sit back and patiently try and explain what it could do and not do. They will use the power of the media and the skills of brand managers to project performances that will feed on a hungry population willing to lap on the hype. The opposition too will add to the decibel levels and communicate their side of the story. Amidst all the din and confusion, what will be missed is an objective search for the truth.
Can one truly measure the performance of public agencies and governments? And what is the reasonable time frame in which such measurements can be done. Before one actually measures, one needs to understand and appreciate what ‘performance’ actually means. The dictionary defines performance as ‘an action, task or operation, seen in terms of how successfully it was performed’. Most of us have a tacit knowledge of performance. We can recognize and understand that something is indeed working as it should be and from a very young age learn to appreciate performance and quality. How does one translate this tacit understanding into something more structured and measurable? Can one actually measure performance in the public sector?
It is indeed tempting for many to focus on the visible indicators like GDP growth, visible infrastructure, industrial climate, etc. but we need to also see deeper and look at the invisible indicators of governance like functioning of democratic institutions and citizenry participation, growth of the primary sector economy and infrastructure gains in rural areas too. One also needs to be realistic and take an objective look at what the Government has done or has been attempting to do over the last one year.
While there has surely been a lot of talk on Making in India, Swacch Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Campaign), less Government and more Governance, citizen engagement and global visibility for India, we need to look at the intent and end result of some of the actions of what the Government has been trying to do. And a good place to begin with will be the avowed intent of the Prime Minister and the manifesto of the BJP. While his style and manner of functioning can be criticized to be less inclusive and very centralized, one needs to keep in mind that this can also be a virtue, especially when one is trying to negotiate the complex power dynamics of Delhi. Reining in the Indian bureaucracy used to years of inefficiency and incompetence does need a demanding taskmaster but there is also the danger of his over dependence on a few selected bureaucrats whose only claim to fame is unquestioned loyalty to him rather than any visionary ability or executive capacity.
Limiting the focus to a few select programs initiated in the last year indicates that it is a mixed bag of achievements. While the Jan Dhan Yojana – People’s Wealth Scheme, a scheme to encourage small savings and banking among India’s vast rural poor – is indeed ambitious and welcome, one finds that more than 60% of the 150 million bank accounts opened remain unused with not a single transaction reported in the last many months. When one goes beyond the hype and photo-ops that Swacch Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India campaign) has created, one recognizes that what India needs is not the PM leading the campaign with a broom but the ordinary citizen undergoing a mindset change. If one were to measure the sociological transformation that is critical to the success of this program, India has a long way to go. But one cannot fault the government for this; ordinary citizens have to take the responsibility for this state of affairs. To make the Make in India (a campaign towards higher indigenization) happen, one needs to understand that one year is too short to affect a change in the prevailing eco-system. Beyond changing rules, regulations and the policies governing the industrial climate, one also needs to have the skilled labour force in place. And this can happen only when the education and skill base of the millions of Indians are in place. This is a long drawn process spread over at least two decades and the action of the Government in cutting the budget of both primary and higher education leaves much to be desired. While skill development programs have been initiated, the nation still does not have a single source where a detailed inventory of skills required and skills available is present. The Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana (a rural development programme broadly focusing upon the development in the villages which includes social development, cultural development and social mobilization) is another well thought out scheme, but is yet to take off as originally conceived. It is a pity that many parliamentarians themselves have not bought into the program.
The NITI Aayog (the Modi Government’s new policy think-tank) was started with a lot of fanfare but one is still unsure of what this body will end up doing. Will it remain the policy think tank that it claims to be or be the nodal agency to ensure co-operative federalism, is still uncertain. The fact that this body is not fully populated with competent members from different sectors that are required ends up sending confusing signals. While cooperative federalism is a good indicator of a maturing democracy, one has to appreciate the Government, for the bold move of transferring 42% of the revenues to the states and allowing them to spend on programs that really matter for them. This is indeed laudable and states have to take the responsibility of expending this new channel of funds wisely on social sector programs. What is difficult to fathom is that the Government of India as a consequence of this decision has cut its budgetary allocations to critical sectors like health, education, child welfare, rural development and Panchayath Raj (local governments at villages and towns) while expecting fiscally undisciplined states to do the spending prudently.
Conflicting signals are also being sent out to the non-governmental sector. It is not only putting a few large NGOs on the watch list or cancelling the foreign funding registrations of thousands of NGOs (many of them defunct), but the worrisome fact is that several good NGOs are yet to receive their legitimate due of financial support from the Government for more than a year now. A visible dislike to dissent expressed by citizens’ groups and civil society actors is acceptable but becomes a matter of concern when it borders on intolerance. The Government has surely done a remarkable job in the coal and spectrum auction and in curbing corruption at high places, but then the attention given to democratic institutions like the Vigilance Commission, the Information Commission and other bodies like the Indian Institutes of Technology leaves a lot of room for doubt about its intent.
The enhanced visibility for India created by the many foreign visits of the Prime Minister is a positive step in ensuring that India secures its rightful place in the comity of Nations. But when one goes deeper than the media hype, one understands that we are yet to clearly formulate a visionary foreign policy that expressly states the intent and basis of action of India towards our neighbours, the USA, China, Russia, the UN and we are yet to officially articulate what Indian interests will be and how they will be safeguarded in a rapidly changing global order.
Finally we need to understand that one year is still a short time in a nation’s history and there will be spill over benefits and setbacks for this government from the many decisions taken by the previous one. And performance is much more than the kilometres of road that is built in a day, the ease of business index, or the number of tourists that visit India. It is also about facilitating creation of the human and social capital the country needs and the economic consequences that ensure because of this. And what matters, is to see whether the intent of policy making, the many legislations that are being contemplated and the initiation of the several programs over the last one year are truly reflective of utilitarian and egalitarian values within the framework of the Indian Constitution. What the overall report card indicates is that the Government is surely moving, but whether this movement is pro-corporate or anti-poor, only the next 2-3 years will show. And the Indian electorate which has always shown itself to be both responsive and responsible will be unforgiving if it believes that the performance of the Prime Minister and his Government is against their interests.